The old human-nature dualism: Are we part of nature?

This simple question can drastically shape our worldview. Today, Tobias Nickel leads us the entanglement with nature in different parts of the world. Today’s essay is part four of the five-part essay series, called Environmental Stewardship in a Post-Natural World.

About the author

Hailing from Cologne, Germany, Tobias Nickel first discovered his love for backpacking and the American West while attending college in California. He graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in environmental science, philosophy, and political science. Working as a guide for the university’s outdoor adventure center, Tobias led trips to wilderness destinations across the American Southwest. Following graduation, Tobias worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the California Wolf Center, and the Catalina Island Conservancy. Currently, Tobias is a Wilderness Research Fellow with the U.S. Forest Service and finishing up his Master’s in Environmental Management at Western Colorado University. Tobias has a deep passion and appreciation for wild places. His current research is focused on the implications of the Anthropocene for wilderness stewardship.

Are we part of nature?

As we have seen, the scientific argument concludes that nature independent of humans became extinct with the advent of the Anthropocene around 1800 due to the enormous expansion in the use of fossil fuels. In dating the end of independent nature, proponents of the scientific argument posit that humans have, at least at some point, existed apart from nature. However, many thinkers have challenged this premise of human separateness, arguing that humans have always already been part of nature. As environmental historian William Cronon puts it, “people have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing.” 

Indeed, it can be argued that humans became a global geophysical force long before the industrial revolution. For example, our species is thought to be responsible for a wave of megafauna extinctions in the late Pleistocene, extending from the woolly mammoth in northern Eurasia to giant wombats in Australia. Humans were also responsible for the domestication of animals as early as 100,000 years ago. About 8,000 years ago, humans began clearing forests for agriculture at scales large enough that it led to a measurable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, which potentially prevented the onset of the next ice age. Given that Homo sapiens has always been a member of the community of life and played a role in shaping Earth system processes, the entire human-nature dichotomy is an error, a false interpretation.

I call this line of reasoning the ontological (or cosmological) argument for the end of nature, because it is rooted in fundamentally diverging views about the human-nature relationship and the place of humankind in the cosmos. In collapsing the human-nature distinction, the ontological argument arrives at the same conclusion as the scientific argument, though for entirely different reasons. I think there is value in teasing out these differences, because they inform and shape our attitude toward environmentalism, climate change, and humanity’s relationship with the more-than-human world.

For proponents of the ontological argument, the idea of human separateness has been and continues to be a harmful illusion, creating a “dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature”. As Dennis Martinez, founder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network, puts it,  “the separation of nature and society is artificial, and for conservation possibly counter-productive.” Many thinkers who share this view argue that the construed human-nature dichotomy underlies much of our species’ environmentally destructive behavior while impoverishing us emotionally by severing our bond with the rest of the living world. 

Proponents of this argument include both Western and non-Western thinkers, although the argument is generally put forth to refute the predominantly Western view that nature exists (or has at one point existed) separate from humans. In his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon traces the intellectual history of “the myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin,’ uninhabited land.” Cronon argues that the ideal of wilderness (i.e., self-willed, pristine, independent nature) originated in Europe with romanticist thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rosseau and was subsequently projected by European settlers onto the American landscape. However, as Potawatomi scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, “the presettlement landscape was often intensively managed by its original inhabitants, so what we viewed as pristine was the product of human intervention.” In other words, the independent, pristine wilderness, the loss of which McKibben mourns in his book The End of Nature, never really existed in the first place. Wilderness, construed as a domain where nature is fully independent and self-willed, is only a “cultural invention,” “the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires”.

Importantly, even though wilderness was (and still is) a cultural fiction, the propagation and idealization thereof has had very real impacts on real people. For example, the wilderness myth has been weaponized to displace Native Americans from their homelands to create uninhabited, self-willed wilderness. Cronon concludes that “wilderness represents a flight from history,” partially absolving the colonizers’ conscience from the ethical burden of confronting the injustices committed against Native Americans.

Cronon is further concerned that the wilderness myth poses “a serious threat to responsible environmentalism at the end of the twentieth century.” He argues that in idealizing a distant wilderness we run the risk of devaluing and absolving ourselves from responsibility for nature that is closer to home and “all around us if only we have eyes to see it.” As a result, in construing a false human-nature dichotomy, Cronon argues that “we leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.”

Seeking to chart a path to the “right” nature, Cronon, Kimmerer, Van Horn and Hausdoerffer and others argue that we need to bridge the human-nature divide, take up “the task of making a home in nature,” and leave behind “the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature”. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer charts one such path toward reweaving the “bond between people and the land” based on indigenous principles of reciprocity, connectedness, and mutual flourishing. Kimmerer is critical of the “Western science worldview, which sets human beings outside of ‘nature’ and judges their interactions with other species as largely negative.” Instead, she proposes a worldview that emphasizes the role of humans as active participants in nature, as ecosystem engineers, and as co-creators of biodiversity. For Kimmerer, culture overlaps with wild nature, and healthy lands depend on humans and their positive role as a keystone species in our planet’s diverse ecosystems.

In conclusion, the ontological argument aims to debunk the myth of wilderness and rid us of the human-nature dichotomy that has dominated Western thinking for so long. To be clear, most proponents of the ontological argument for the end of nature care deeply about the more-than-human-world. I call it an argument for the “end of nature,” but it is a specific idea of (independent, pristine) nature, a way of construing the human-nature relationship, that its proponents object to and that they seek to overcome. In doing so, however, these thinkers and critics may do away with the concept of nature altogether.

Tobias Nickel
Wilderness Research Fellow with the U.S. Forest Service

Join us in the last essay next week where we explore how environmental stewardship in the post-natural world should continue forward!

Please Leave a Comment